Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March Madness

This is the weekend in which people who can’t tell a zone defense from a pick and roll suddenly become interested in college basketball.

Selections have been made for the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, also known (and even officially trademarked) as “March Madness.”

While college basketball has its share of fans during its regular season, it’s not until this weekend that nearly everybody in the country starts to care about it. There will be office pools, betting (legal or not), TV remotes hard-wired to CBS, and thousands of heads looking up at the screen whenever the distinctive, eight-note March Madness jingle is played, in order to check the score of a game in which most people couldn’t name one player.

Why do people who can’t locate Gonzaga on a map suddenly start rooting for them?

Because March Madness is one of the most democratic sporting events—up to a point.

The tournament is one of the few sporting events where David has a realistic chance of beating Goliath. Basketball’s nature makes it more amenable to upsets than other sports. A college football team needs to recruit scores of players and spend thousands on equipment. A college basketball team needs five good players and a ball. Some of this year’s first-round matchups would be inconceivable in college football, except as an early-season, 59-3 blowout. Kansas vs. Portland State? Tennessee vs. American? Washington State vs. Winthrop? Winthrop? Wasn’t that Ron Howard's character in The Music Man?

Another factor contributing to the unpredictability is the ungodly amount of money to be made in the NBA. A truly superior player won’t stick around for four years of college when he can make millions. This has served to level the playing field—or should I say the court?—in the college game.

So, on this weekend, the unlikely is likely to happen. There are always a few upsets in the opening round. While no #16 seed has ever beaten a #1, four #15 seeds have beaten #2. The #9 has actually beaten #8 54 percent of the time.

Eventually, reality sets in for most of the underdogs. The tournament’s length tends to ensure that favorites will be there at the finish. For a Belmont or Cal State Fullerton to pull off one upset would be quite a feat. To do the same thing six times in a row? Well…you can never say never.

Still, that’s why we watch—to celebrate the underdog in all of us.

Just don’t bet the rent on Coppin State.

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